Ojai-O Japanese Restaurant
11400 N. Ventura Ave.
A new name has recently been raised in Mira Monte. Along the quick half-mile among three stoplights in the midsection of the Ojai Valley sit 10 places to grab a bite — eight restaurants plus two coffee spots — with the recently opened Ojai-O Japanese now serving an alluring menu of regional Asian cuisine while boasting the largest and warmest dining rooms in town.
This short stretch of Highway 33 is generally most noted for being home to food (and drink) chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Starbucks, fast eats and drive-thrus in between Oak View and Ojai proper. Not much family-style dining exists here; well, just one does, really, and Ojai-O gladly accepts that label.
On a clear, early evening in late spring, softly setting sunlight shone through Ojai-O’s west-facing window treatments, sending soothing pink and green tones across the many indoor tables and corner sushi bar, meanwhile welcoming further Sunday diners to the wide, sunset deck just outside. We have our choice among five different seating areas, definitely set up a lot differently than I imagined.
The clock reads 4:57 p.m. as my wife and I are led to our table by, undoubtedly, one of the sweetest hostesses in the county. An eight-top with children Crayon coloring on placemat runners has nestled into the middle room; a Yanagi-wielding sushi chef laughs with the older couple celebrating a birthday at the bar; a few other couples talk softly around us as several 30-somethings enjoy the weekend’s last rays on the patio.
The Ojai-O menu is hearty, filled with mostly Japanese (and some Chinese) fare — soups, salads, appetizers, noodle, rice bowls, nigiri, myriad sushi rolls, sashimi combinations, chef’s specials, bento boxes, meat, fish and vegetarian entrees — as well as 10 Korean-inspired house delicacies (like hot stone bibimbap or spicy pork bulgogi). Hunger, a huge menu and indecision make for bad bedfellows, though, so our order was tentatively placed in waves.
Less than 10 minutes later, the gyoza, sunomono and a baked salmon roll arrived.
Fresh, crispy and hot, one side seared just right and served with a golden, ponzu-esque dipping broth, the savory, ground meat-filled gyoza was a scrumptious start. The tangy sunomono (aka cucumber salad) played well off the dumpling, a bowl filled with eighth-inch slices of Japanese cucumbers and a few carrot slivers marinated in rice vinegar and a hint of (sesame or almond) oil, slightly pickled and mixed with sesame seeds.
Half of the baked salmon roll was already gone by the time I chopsticked for my first piece. Basically a California Roll topped with cooked salmon, scallions and masago and drizzled with a sweet and slightly salty, dark kabayaki sauce, each bite raised eyes, conjured mumbled “mmm”s and caused nods of approval across the table.
Unexpected cups of complimentary miso soup were set down as we enjoyed the appetizers and, when an empty mouth allowed, we requested the very unique super burrito “roll” and a two-item bento dinner.
Perhaps it’s an OCD thing or a Virgo thing, but the compartmentalized bento box has been a favorite meal of mine since grade school — the traditional chicken teriyaki, rice scoop, iceberg salad with grated ginger dressing, kale garnish and orange slice. That evening, we added the simple spicy tuna roll, always a decent sushi bar barometer.
The box, as a whole, was pretty good yet not exceptional. The thin, white slices of chicken breast over shredded cabbage were lean yet leaned a little toward the dry side; luckily, the teriyaki sauce saved it. The iceberg lettuce was chilled and crunchy with a great balance of grated ginger dressing, not at all watery. The fish mixture in the tuna roll was tasty and vibrantly red, finely chopped and seasoned just enough, though chili addicts like us would never call it “spicy.”
It was the super burrito that did blow our minds. Visually wondrous, superbly sliced, popping with color, and drool-worthy — this was definitely a striking, mouthwatering creation. Spicy crabmeat, tuna and salmon sashimi, jalapeño, avocado, cucumber, tempura shrimp, wrapped in soy paper, sprinkled with sesame seeds and plated with a side of special spicy (and peanutty) sauce. It was almost a shame to disturb such a careful presentation. A big, double-bite type of cut roll, it was only fitting that I pour a spoonful of sauce atop and shone one of the grand pieces into my mouth at once to taste how all the elements of this masterpiece played together. Sublime.